MARCH 1st...! A New Sybil Bruncheon's "WHO'Z DAT!!"..... LIONEL ATWILL (March 1, 1885 – April 22nd, 1946)...
Darlings! Mummy has made a decision! After reading dozens of posts and having hundreds of conversations with well-meaning folks who just don't know about the great CHARACTER actors who gave films the depth and genius that surrounded and supported the so-called "stars", I am going to post a regular, special entry called SYBIL'S "WHO'Z DAT??"....there'll be photos and a mini-bio, and the next time you see one of those familiar, fabulous faces that you just "can't quite place".......well, maybe these posts will help. Some of these actors worked more, had longer and broader careers, and ended up happier, more loved, and even wealthier than the "stars" that the public "worships"......I think there may be a metaphor in that! What do you think??? Well, while you're mulling that over, let me present a face that everyone always recognizes and a voice and manner that go with it perfectly! It’s Lionel Atwill (March 1, 1885 – April 22nd, 1946).
Lionel Alfred William Atwill (nicknamed ‘Pinky’ for the red tinge of his hair) was born into a wealthy family in Croydon, Surrey, England. Educated at London's prestigious Mercer School, he had considered a career in medicine but was working in a surveyor’s office with an aim toward becoming an architect when he was lured away from the promise of steady income by the siren’s call of the theatrical arts and eventually turned his interest to the stage. He made his debut at twenty at the famous Garrick Theatre in London in 1904 and worked steadily there and in Australian tours, appearing in plays by both Ibsen and Shaw.
He came to New York in 1915 to tour the United States with Lillie Langtry in MRS. THOMPSON. The production was a disaster but Atwill persevered and made it to Broadway, where he staged and acted in a production of THE LODGER (a full decade before Hitchcock’s silent screen adaptation) at New York’s Bandbox Theater in January of 1917. Atwill was Julius Caesar to Helen Hayes’ Cleopatra in CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA in 1925, appeared with Russian diva Alla Nazimova in a trio of Ibsen plays performed in repertory and appeared opposite Fanny Brice and Louise Brooks in the notorious Broadway flop FIORETTA in 1929. The New York Times devoted a feature to Atwill as early as 1918 (“The Rise of Lionel Atwill”) and he appeared with his second wife in a highly publicized pictorial in Vanity Fair in 1921, in conjunction with his vaudeville tour of THE WHITE FACED FOOL.
Atwill performed in twenty-five Broadway plays between 1917 and 1931, but he also began exploring the new medium of silent film dabbling in it while continuing on stage. His distinctive voice and commanding British accent that served him so well in the theatre made his transition into the “talkies” extremely easy beginning in 1928 when he did some Vitaphone short subjects and then his first real film role in THE SILENT WITNESS (1932), also titled THE VERDICT. His next role was as the chilly clinician Dr. Xavier in First National’s DOCTOR X (1932), which was filmed in revolutionary two-strip Technicolor and costarred Fay Wray. The story was filled with all sorts of lurid horror gimmicks and was a “murder mystery” as well. Cleared of the charge of cannibalism by the fade-out, Atwill’s character turns out to be a loving father and hero by the end of the film. More often than not, he was the fiendish villain as in THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1932), THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933), THE SPHINX (1933), MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933), THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD (1934), and in Tod Browning’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935).
Although he did travel on occasion to Australia to appear onstage, his focus remained in U.S. horror film roles in the 1930s. He also specialized as shady noblemen, gruff military men, and police inspectors (usually with a signature mustache) and worked steadily. He had the chance to show a broader character as the tyrannical but unforgettable Col. Bishop in CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935) with super-stars Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone. Perhaps one of his most iconic roles was Inspector Krogh in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939). In an almost comical scene, Inspector Krogh agrees to a game of darts with Basil Rathbone’s Baron Frankenstein and proceeds to impale the darts through the right sleeve of his uniform (the character sports a wooden right arm that replaces the one he lost as child to the original monster.) Few actors could deliver a line like ”One doesn’t easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots!” and still sound classy. It is as much the over-the-top character of Krogh as Atwill’s delivery of him that is memorably sent up by Kenneth Mars in Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974).
In addition to macabre roles, Atwill often appeared in the 1930s as various other authority and villainous figures. Two of his most notable non-horror roles were again opposite his contemporary Basil Rathbone in films featuring Arthur Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes, including a role as Dr. James Mortimer in 20th Century Fox's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939) and the 1943 Universal Studios film SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON, in which he played Holmes' archenemy and super-villain, Professor Moriarty. Known for his sense of humor, Atwill sends himself up with the wonderful portrayal of stage-ham repertory actor Rawitch in Ernst Lubitsch’s classic TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) with Jack Benny. Co-starring such comedic giants as Sig Ruman, Carole Lombard, Felix Bressart, and others, Atwill holds his own with comedic timing and self-important puffery! His films during these years included musicals like THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1939) with Don Ameche, and even a variety of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto murder mysteries.
Atwill remained a stalwart of the Universal horror films until in 1943, he effectively ruined his solid film career when he was implicated in what was described as an "orgy" at his home. Naked guests (many of them purportedly Hollywood celebrities) along with pornographic films--and an alleged rape perpetrated during the proceedings brought the police, arrests, and scandal. Atwill "lied like a gentleman," it was said, in the court proceedings to protect the identities of his guests and was convicted of perjury and sentenced to five years' probation, an odd and tragic distinction in the Hollywood community. Only seven months into his sentence he applied for and was granted termination of his sentence, and his record was expunged. Unfortunately, the Hays Office was a different matter. He'd been unemployed during the trial and his sentence, and his wealthy wife Louise (the ex-wife of General Douglas MacArthur!) divorced him in June 1943.
He no longer felt welcome in Hollywood, and he moved East spending weeks looking for roles on Broadway without any success. The only possibility was back in Hollywood at the one studio that specialized in hiring fallen name (and no-name) talent on the cheap, Producers Releasing Corporation. Known as the very definition of Poverty Row, PRC was a far cry from his glory days at the major studios. Within the industry, working along Gower Gulch was an admission of failure and disgrace. PRC "features" were usually allotted a five-day shooting schedule and retakes were forbidden. Although Atwill was able to return sporadically to Universal for some sporadic bits and serials, he was condemned to spending the majority of his remaining career working in Poverty Row. Atwill died of pneumonia and lung cancer while working on a low-budget serial, LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE (1946).
Lionel Atwill has the distinction of being the only actor to appear in five of the eight Frankenstein films released by Universal from 1931-1948. He appeared in Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945). During his lifetime, he had made more than 60 films. Atwill had a strange string of bad luck with his homes. A $42.000 mansion burned to the ground in the California fires of October 1935, and a December 1936 coastal storm undermined two of his homes which slid into the ocean along with $12,000 worth of antique furniture. The actor's Maryland estate, which had served as a honeymoon retreat for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, was burglarized twice in August 1937.
Atwill had been married four times, and had two sons. His first son John Anthony Atwill, by first wife Phyllis Relph, was a WWII flying officer with the Royal Air Force and was killed in action in 1941. A second son, Lionel Anthony Guille Atwill, was born to him late in life (at age 60) by his last wife, Mary Paula Pruter. Atwill died just six months after his second son’s birth. Interestingly, given Atwill’s career and personal troubles, he was once quoted as saying, “One side of my face is gentle and kind, incapable of anything but love of my fellow man. The other side, the other profile, is cruel and predatory and evil, incapable of anything but lusts and dark passions. It all depends on which side of my face is turned toward you--or the camera.” His body was cremated, and his ashes were once interred in the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles, but the family later moved them to another location.
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